“Sometimes I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes I’ve made it harder to find common ground… Sometimes I wanted to win for the sake of winning more so than for the sake of a contested policy.”
- Senator John McCain
I still remember as a nine-year-old boy feeling compelled to take time to follow the Oklahoma state races as well as the 2004 presidential election even though I wouldn’t be casting a vote for any of the candidates (besides my very important elementary school election of course)! These experiences instilled in me a sacred devotion to my country and civility, both of which would lead to my service on several political campaigns and my goal towards becoming a public servant.
As much as I love politics and contemplated what it would be like to work in a myriad of exciting U.S. government jobs, I always knew at the same time that there was a version of politics that I didn’t like. It was one full of hatred, resentment, disunity, and selfishness. Although I knew it was there and could always become an issue, I believed in the goodness in our nation and communities to never fully embrace that kind of darkness. However, it seems I was wrong. Hatred and vitriol seem to be the only thing we focus on in our political discourses. And worst of all, there have been far too many times when I was silent and didn’t do anything to stop my friends from blindly embracing damaging rhetoric that resulted in the loss of friendships. I have witnessed friends shift their focus from building meaningful friendships over what unites them and instead focus on building Himalayan-sized walls over what divides them.
It’s amazing that as permeable as this dangerous divide and rhetoric is today, rarely did I experience such conversations like these as a kid in Altus, Oklahoma. Of course they were there but the good far outweighed the bad. In school, I remember having phenomenal teachers such as Mr. Garrison, Coach Hepner, and Coach Legrand. They each came from various political backgrounds but they were never obsessed with promoting their personal beliefs or agendas. Instead, they focused on something far greater—civility. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why my teachers were so focused on such a simple (sometimes I felt it was pointless, even stupid) principle. I remember often thinking, isn’t who’s right more important than how we debate or how we disagree?
I realize now, though, that I was dealing with a similar issue that even the late Senator John McCain struggled with for over 30 years during his political career in Washington D.C. He described it this way, “Sometimes I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes I’ve made it harder to find common ground… Sometimes I wanted to win for the sake of winning more so than for the sake of a contested policy.” It’s amazing that a lesson that I learned as a teenager in my teachers’ classrooms was something that Senator McCain didn’t come to fully realize until he was 81 years old! Perhaps it’s just me, but maybe the reason our leaders and our society struggle with this voracious desire to win and relentless push for tribalism because we have neglected that which matters most, embracing and spreading civility.
Returning to civility and integrity is crucial to our nation's democracy and will at times be very challenging to accomplish. But I draw courage from a story I’ve heard many times in my life. You may know it as the story of the two wolves.
There is a story told of an old Cherokee teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One is evil: he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
[The old man continued], “The other is good: he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and fight. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Such a simple yet profound story! How does it tie into our nation’s current political climate? It’s no secret that in recent weeks, months, and perhaps even years, we have lacked not only the leadership but more so the civility and respect that our nation needs to survive! We have subconsciously (perhaps even consciously) as a society fed the wolf of anger, envy, sorrow, greed, violence, selfishness, pride and ego while abusing the wolf that has represented our nation’s peace, hope, respect, search for truth, compassion, and civility.
As we analyze where we went wrong and who is to blame for causing us to abandon the safe campground of civility, it’s easy to point a fault-finding finger at those around us and at our leaders who have, in large part, failed us. I will not mince words, President Trump, Speaker Pelosi, and many of our other nation’s leaders have stoked the flames of tribalism and weakened our moral foundation. However, the problem has extended and gone far deeper than that. I have noticed several increasing and disturbing societal trends that have stemmed from our lack of emotional discipline and complacency with civility. As a result, instead of politics uplifting family discussions it now fractures families bonds. Friends of different ideological backgrounds rarely communicate with one another due to strained friendships that are no longer focused on uplifting each other but tearing one another down. Perhaps most frustrating, we have embraced an all or nothing mentality in politics. As a result disagreements over the slightest variances of opinion are seen as potential landmines instead of opportunities to learn something new. If we wish for these trends to be halted and reversed, we have to get back to the classroom of civility!
Let me be clear, relearning how to be civil won’t be easy, but what other choice do we have? If we fail to embrace this principle, our divided nation won’t survive!
We must make greater efforts to show restraint when we feel compelled to force our views on someone else. We must be more willing to take greater time to listen to those we disagree with and less time to share what we’re feeling. We must also remember that no matter what we may think, each of us has arrived at the ideological perspective that we hold because of our own unique and individual life experiences. As frustrating as diversity can sometimes be, taking the time to celebrate the diversity of our nation is what has made America such a symbol of hope to the world!
Part of the reason we are such a symbol of hope is because we have so many great examples to follow, such as George Washington who had the humility and wisdom to surrender the power of the White House. We can also be like President Lincoln by seeking to form our own team of rivals and tear down the barriers of oppression. We can be humble like President Bush Sr., and when we lose political battles, we can gracefully step aside while still cheering on our opponent because we realize that at the end of the day we’re all on the same team! We can be like President Truman and embrace the mentality that “the buck” of accountability stops with us and our actions. We can be like President John Adams and President Eisenhower who both wisely found ways to steer America clear of dangerous conflicts that would only serve to weaken our nation, community, and families. We can heed President Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country!”
As you look at these examples, perhaps you may think, but what about the times America hasn’t acted civilly? It’s true; our nation does have a dark history, and I won’t deny that. But I am choosing to embrace the good because I believe the good outweighs the bad. I choose to believe that we can return to that ideal that President Reagan advocated for: America can be a “shining city on a hill.” It’s not too late! I firmly believe that this project I’m working on, The Civility Initiative, is a critical step into moving along that path.
I believe The Civility Initiative can help our nation, community, and friends to feed the “good wolf” and embrace civility. That’s a big goal to accomplish, but each member of our team is motivated to put our country on the right path.
For myself, I am motivated by the desire for my children and grandchildren to grow up in a society where people of different races, political backgrounds and varying religious beliefs can not just be friendly but rather true, sincere friends. I want to be a part of the solution and help heal our nation’s deep divide.
I recall a moment I experienced while working on my friend’s, Tommy Ahlquist, campaign to become governor of Idaho. I served as his Eastern Idaho Field Director. Part of my job was to go and meet with local community leaders in hopes of convincing them to support Tommy. On one occasion, I had a chance to meet with a great mayor of a town called Blackfoot. He was very polite and gracious with his time. He asked me why I chose to work for Tommy’s campaign. I told him it was because I believed in the principles Tommy was fighting for but most of all I believed Tommy would reignite the civility and dignity in Idaho politics that had recently been missing. I shared my concern about our nation and how my friends seemed to be growing weary of and disinterested in political discussions. When I finished speaking, he shared similar concerns about children in his own community and how deeply he wished for people to know that there’s a way to be civil while firm and steadfast in our convictions. Not long after, our conversation came to a close and I never saw that mayor again. However, the spirit of our conversation about the divisiveness and tribalistic behavior of so many stuck with me. I feel that I am just now realizing how I can help my friends and my country overcome these problems.
At a time when echo chambers seem to be the norm and tribalism seems to be at an all-time high, I believe there is no better time than now to encourage and foster civil dialogue. The Civility Initiative is meant to be that step in the right direction. There will be those that posture that such a movement is pointless, a waste of time, unnecessary and a child’s dream. I vehemently disagree. America is so much better than falling into the same traps and pitfalls that previous democracies and great nations have fallen into. With a rapidly increasing amount of distrust and disinformation, I seek to join with my friends in this effort to create a voice. A voice of reason. A voice of hope. A voice of unity. A voice of fairness. A voice of justice. As we take these first steps, I hope you’ll join us as we seek to create an atmosphere inclusive for all. Of course there will be times that things are shared on our website or social media pages that you may not agree with. That’s okay! Embracing diversity is a good thing and can help our country become even stronger through more civil discourse! But, we would have to choose and work for it to be that way. Please, join me in removing any tribalistic feelings or gnawing desires to be right and instead replace it with feelings of hope and honesty that will allow us to have truly civil discussions. As we do this, we will wisely choose the correct “wolf” in our American democracy we’ll feed.